TO THE EDITOR:
If you live in Weston, where a majority of us have school-age children, you’ve likely come to know several spots along the main roads where parents wait for the bus in the morning with their little ones, and then greet them in the afternoon to head home. In the winter months, these spots can be lined with cars but in warmer months, you’ll see parents standing on corners and driveways, chatting with neighbors, maybe checking their mail or looking at their phones.
If you’ve done this yourself, you’ve likely come to know it as a mundane ritual of suburban life. Maybe it’s a peaceful moment in your day, to take in some fresh air and be proud when your child tells you she got an A on her science presentation.
On November 21, 2019, Walter left his home and took the five-minute walk down to the corner where he waited for his 5-year old daughter’s bus to bring her home as he did every afternoon.
Walter’s private road has one of those mailbox clusters you see on main roads, and he collected his mail on the way to the bus stop. He waved to his neighbors also arriving; a mother who waited for her child in the car, and father who brought the family dog to welcome his kids home from school. Three parents doing the afterschool shuffle.
Two of them never had to be taught to stay calm and in complete compliance when confronted by a police officer — not creating any reason for escalation — in order to stay alive. Two of them were white.
Just moments before, a Weston woman was driving by and noticed a Black man at the mailbox cluster. She dialed 911.
“Weston 911 what’s the location of your emergency?” asked the Dispatcher. Emergency. Because we all know dialing 911 is to be used for emergencies only.
The woman began, “Hi I just saw some man going into a mailbox here … I’m not looking to profile at all but he’s just standing on the corner now with like some mail in his hand.” Self- aware enough to know (but not enough to stop) that describing normal behavior to a 911 Dispatcher might seem odd, she prefaced with the not-profiling disclaimer as if that makes it any less so.
After all, Walter did go into a mailbox and was indeed “just standing on the corner now with like some mail in his hand.” Guilty as charged.
The Dispatcher went on to verify the location with the woman. She apparently felt the need to further reiterate the disclaimer once more, but this time with a nervous laugh, “And I’m trying, I’m totally not looking to profile at all. It’s just he was in the box and now he’s standing on the corner.”
Once more for emphasis: She called the police to report a man checking his mail and standing on a corner.
The Dispatcher proceeded to gather more information, description (“um, he’s like a light- skinned black man”), clothing, height … the woman volunteered, “I don’t know if he was stealing or what.” his build (“kind of thin”) … and then she said the quiet part out loud.
“He just looks suspicious to me.” the woman admitted. There it is. Right there.
She said that twice while the Dispatcher was collecting more details. He promised to send officers to check it out.
Craning his neck for a sign of the bus, Walter noticed a Ford SUV police cruiser pull up in front of him. Walter tensed up. He was taught at an early age to only speak calmly and respectfully to police. Give no reason to escalate.
Walter recounts what happened next.
The Officer approached with urgency, “I got a call that someone was taking stuff out of one of the mailboxes. What are you doing out here?”
Walter replied, “I live out here. I was just checking my mailbox and now I’m just waiting to pick up my daughter … this is her bus st…
“WHERE DO YOU LIVE?” the Officer demanded aggressively, cutting him off. Walter noticed the Officer’s hand hovering near his holstered sidearm.
The neighbor with the dog, growing concerned at the officer’s aggressive behavior intervened with a, “Everything OK?” to Walter. This immediately lowered the temperature because apparently, white people are incapable of colluding in mail theft schemes.
The Officer’s demeanor turned to mildly annoyed and he collected information from Walter, who did his best to hide his next concern: that his 5-year old daughter might arrive off the bus before the interrogation finished and witness Daddy being harassed by the police.
The family had only recently moved to Weston. As a new student, would her classmates understand? Would she associate the police shootings of unarmed Black men she sees on the news and be frightened? If she arrives, should Walter ask the Officer’s permission to retrieve her? Or would that escalate things?
Luckily, before the bus arrived, the Officer retreated to his cruiser saying, “One of your neighbors called this in.” He repeated this twice, as if to emphasize the neighbor woman was to blame for his aggressive behavior.
It’s hard to believe, but that’s only half of the story.
Let’s pause and consider these truths before moving on.
For white people, skin color carries very little risk when it comes to asserting your rights. But just imagine the courage it took for Walter and his wife to walk into the Weston Police Department the next day to file a complaint.
The Chief of Police was there and heard Walter’s account of events at the bus stop. The 911 tapes were requested, and Walter left assured that an investigation of the incident would begin.
Months passed without any updates. Walter’s wife found an opportunity for him to tell his story to the chair of our Police Commission and the Police Captain on a Zoom call with other neighbors concerned about how Westonites of color were being treated in the wake of the George Floyd murder.
The Captain was familiar with the case but explained that Walter never submitted an official complaint, so nobody followed up. No investigation. What the…?
Um, what about that meeting with the Chief the day after? How much more official can it be than walking into the station and talking to the Chief of Police? Turns out, nobody instructed Walter to submit a written complaint in November. And even now, nobody from the Police Department provided Walter with instructions, or the complaint form. He had to research and find it online.
On July 20, 2020 — a full eight months later — Walter wrote down the whole experience, reliving it all once more.
Again, Walter trusted the system. And again, months passed with no updates. Walter sent several emails asking for an update, but the officer got COVID and then the Chief did too. These become obstacles for an investigation but only because it was started after the written complaint, instead of after the Chief promised it on November 22nd 2019.
Finally, on February 10, 2021, the Captain sent Walter an Internal Affair Disposition closing the case of his complaint. The disposition referenced statements and information from neighbors that conflicted. Conflicted with what? Walter asked his neighbors if they’d been interviewed by police about the matter. Nope. Not one had ever been contacted (although all agreed to corroborate Walter’s story).
Undeterred, Walter met with our First Selectman and the Town Administrator who heard him out, the whole ordeal relived once again, and apologetically suggested that Walter meet with the Police Commission chair one-on-one. Perhaps she was dismissive before in the group setting of a Zoom call and might help more when focused on Walter’s case?
The Commission chair took the call and promised to share his case with the full Commission and follow up. When she did, she minimized the incident saying it was “only five minutes” and the officer involved has a military background and isn’t “warm and fuzzy.” She was able to confirm that the police did not, in fact, interview neighbors with conflicting statements.
In the end, the people in charge let Walter down as much as the woman who called 911, the Dispatcher or the officer did.
Getting nowhere in private, Walter asked for an opportunity to address the Police Commission in public, since this is clearly an issue of public safety for people of color in Weston.That opportunity is this Tuesday, May 4, 2021 at 7pm.
I ask that you to please attend and hear Walter speak in his own words, and hear his ideas about not only how he can achieve closure over this trauma, but also how Weston can address these systemic issues and avoid future harassments in our town.
— Kirk Skodis
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